Often in my dreams, the setting is a normal one. Unaware of the falseness of what my sleeping brain projects, I’m in some weird scenario – maybe even humorous – but the strangeness never causes my sleeping mind to jolt. I’m not directly causing any of the images, they’re better described as happening to me. In the moment it’s so real, as dreams always occur before we wake.
In the bad ones, often I’m trying to do something simple, like run, but my feet won’t move as fast as they should – as if I were underwater. The bad guy who’s chasing behind catches up to me and I can’t go any faster, and I can really feel it. I can feel the strain of trying to force my legs to move quicker and to build a pace that never comes. In others, I’m meeting a celebrity I admire. I can’t believe it, I ask them for a photo and they reply with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, but when I reach for my phone I can’t find the camera app. I scroll and scroll but the icon has disappeared – so the photo opportunity passes, dangled in front of me then snatched away by an inability to access what I needed. In the most frightening of them, I’m in a physical fight. Someone is coming towards me and I have the confidence to hit them, but my arms feel weak like spaghetti and my hands won’t close to form a fist. I have the strength of a wet paper bag. My limbs betray me, leaving me open and vulnerable, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
The common thread in my subconscious mind is a lack of autonomy over my body, mind, and tools. I’m aware of everything, but I can’t seem to make any true changes to the physical world around me. The grains of sand fall through my grip because I can’t create a seal. I’m there and I’m real but none of it belongs to me – I have no power. Perhaps this is why, for people like me, Mother! is a terror-inducing exercise of tension and will power.
In Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical thriller, Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a stand-in for mother nature. Through biblical metaphors, the film makes a case of humanity’s greed and destruction – how we take and take until there’s nothing left. Veronica (or Mother, but for simplicity’s sake let’s call her Veronica) watches as her husband (only named as “Him”) turns their secluded house into an open one, inviting in evil and despair in the form of people, until the disturbing finale brings a conclusion to the madness. While the grossness of death and blood left a mark, I was terrified a long time before it.
The Uninvited Guests
Javier Bardem’s Him buys a new house for the couple and Veronica works to make it as comfortable and loving as she can. She pictures a perfect life with the perfect husband, but it was false hope. When the first two strangers show up at the door, they’re invited in by Him without worry. Veronica accepts them cautiously but is not totally comfortable with their presence.
It starts off with small impositions. Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, credited as “Woman”, moves Veronica’s laundry, the two guests make themselves a little bit too at home and start triggering stress for one half of the happy couple. It’s hard to accuse them of doing anything genuinely malicious, but there’s something underneath that doesn’t feel right. All these tiny annoyances and all she can do is politely try to avoid any more disturbances to her home. But the mess builds, and soon more people show up at her doorstep. Mess breeds mess, and letting the first two in causes a chain effect. The first man’s family comes and they have a dispute in the home. They fight and one of them ends up dead, bleeding all over the floor.
Each event comes at a psychological and physical cost. Veronica is becoming more and more distressed, and a toll is taken on the home she so deeply cares about. Nobody around her seems to care, not in the way she does. Her husband brushes her worries off, speaks over her, and gaslights her into thinking she’s overreacting. He lights match after match and Veronica is left putting the fires out. With every new problem, her surroundings are tarnished, and the numbers of the strangers appearing on her doorstep continue to grow. She’s to believe it’s all just coincidence and circumstance, despite the feeling that invading forces are at play.
Him offers to throw a funeral in the house for the man who died in the fight, and she has no choice but to comply – because it would be rude to say no. While the guests stand around drinking and laughing, she cleans and paces around the rooms trying to get the numerous guests to act with respect. They, on the surface at least, have no mal-intent and listen for just a second, before returning to their bad behavior the moment she turns her back. She asks them repeatedly to not lean on her unbraced sink and takes on the mannerisms of a stressed stay at home mother hosting a birthday party for her son and his unruly friends. As the night goes on her grasp on everything in her life loosens. Her house is her world, and these people are stomping around with no tact or manners. Worse, nobody takes her seriously.
Making a House a Home
Watching these images, I was quite inexplicably reminded of the last time I had moved into a new apartment. I was so far from home, and reasonably stressed – but willing to try to make the best of the low-rent flat I was going to be spending the next few months in. I carried 3 suitcases across the city and eventually got all my things into my new room, and for the first time got to check out the place properly. I remember walking into the bathroom and feeling itchy. It looked like it had not been cleaned in at least a couple of months, there was dirt on the floor, mold in the shower cubicle and dust lining every surface. I visited the kitchen next. The floor felt sticky under my feet, the pans didn’t look like they were being properly scrubbed and there were dead insects on the windowsill. There’s more, but I’ll spare you.
I was meant to meet friends for a relaxing drink that night, in celebration of the fact I had moved out of my previous apartment which I was so uncomfortable in. I sat there, told my friends the place needed some TLC and tried to let it slip my mind.- but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So in my head, I pretended to listen to the conversation while really making a mental list of the cleaning products I would need to buy. The next day, I went out and got everything. Again, a friend came and we sat a while before heading home. At one point I noticed my leg was bouncing up and down involuntarily – a nervous tic. Before I knew it, I was fifteen minutes into a ramble about cleaning. I talked about what I would clean, what I would use to do it and how much better I would feel afterwards.
Forgoing some work I was meant to do that night, I made my new living space presentable. It wasn’t perfect, but my skin wasn’t crawling anymore, and the tile floor was white again. It felt cathartic, and only after did I let myself find it humorous how worked up I had gotten. I woke up the next day happy enough, stepped out of my room and across the hall to the bathroom, where I found shoe footprints all over the floor I had cleaned less than 18 hours ago.
Among my roommates’ charms was their habit of inviting friends over at 4am, and partying until 8am – knowing full well it would keep me awake. I could try to describe the level of fury I experienced as I laid awake in bed, but there are no words. There was a language barrier and I was trying to make the best of it, so I did nothing. I just watched as all my work trying to maintain a nice home for us went unnoticed and was consistently destroyed by people who didn’t care. In the time I was living in the city, my mindset and mood were directly in correlation with how clean and comfortable whatever apartment I was staying in at the time. With all of this in mind, I understood Veronica’s frustration – the plight of following the politeness rule book and not causing a fuss.
It wasn’t so much that there was a problem, it was that I couldn’t fix it. Not with requests to the people around me to treat our space better, not with hours of scrubbing, not with a “fuck it” attitude. Just like in my dreams, I was a victim to my environment. And it all felt so dramatic at the time, despite the story being a funny tale of woe now.
The world can so often feel cold and hostile, disregarding everything that’s important to you. Someone infringing on your personal space might not be a big deal, but what happens to her happens over and over again, and gets more dangerous with every passing minute. The situation Veronica experiences in the film is in no way similar to my ridiculous and common apartment anger, but it’s fascinating to think that I was reminded of my own small ordeal. The horror aspects of the film worm their way in through the channels of the paranoia she feels and how it manifests into a controlling nature.
The Savage Circle of Life
Near the end of Mother!, Veronica’s newborn baby is snatched from her. Passed person to person by the sea of people who have now destroyed her home. She squirms through the crowd, desperate to get a hand on her child, to pull him back, but he’s always out of reach. She’s found out why all these faces have invaded her life, simply to get to the man and boy in her life. Every time she gets close to her son there’s an obstruction. The camera twists and turns with disorientation through the crowd, catching smaller and smaller glimpses of the baby. She tries with every ounce of her to get to him, but she isn’t fast enough. Her legs won’t move any quicker, she can’t raise the strength to push the bodies that are in her way hard enough to make any difference. Watching this, it felt like I was back in my own nightmares. We are just the audience and we can’t help her. We can feel our legs twitch, our grips on the remote tighten, and we can shout at the TV with all the effect of a sports fan screaming at his team through the screen, but we are powerless just as Veronica is.
Mother! was polarizing, but I found the way it portrayed frustration and the loss of control to be infatuating – it captured the essence of a particular type of anxiety. Aronofsky is no stranger to the theme of control – in Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer battles with her loosening mind, but the way it manifests in Mother! is special in its own way, and of an external nature that is the opposite of how things were explored in his 2010 masterpiece. I believe Mother! to be so effective because it relates Veronica’s trauma to a feeling almost every human being has experienced at a much lower intensity: a lack of influence on the world around them.